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Crime Drama

I pulled into the visitors’ lot and was prepared to wait, but the van pulled up just when it was supposed to. In my experience, it was unusual for any part of the criminal justice system to operate efficiently, but apparently they could at least get the shuttles to run on time. Grey, with WAYNE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY emblazoned in bold type across the rear sliding passenger door, the van carried with it the deferred dreams of a thousand desperate men. Today, it also carried the man who had been my best friend, who had followed me down the path that had made us literal partners in crime. Until we got busted, that is, exactly 11 years, 1 month, and 13 days ago. He began his stay here shortly afterwards, the result of a rampant citywide drug problem and an overzealous district attorney up for re-election. 

He’s also here because of me. It was a classic prisoner’s dilemma, and he chose wrong. The honorable thief, or in this case, the honorable dealer, is the one who pays the price, I guess. The dishonorable one -- the one who rats out his friend -- gets probation and community service. 

Here’s the part that will really make you hate me: I didn’t visit him the whole time he was locked up. The man is locked up 10 years and I don’t visit him a single time. What kind of jerk does that? Truth is, I was scared to face him. Scared of what he would say to me. Scared of what I would learn about myself just by looking into his defeated eyes behind the glass. So I didn’t go. In the beginning, it was easy to fool myself into thinking that eventually I would go visit him. I even had specific reasons for the delay: 

Next month I’ll do it, once I’m settled into this job.

Once I can buy myself a car, first thing I’ll do is go see him

Then the months dragged on, and my reasoning became more vague. Sometime when I have more time, I’ll go see him. When I’m not as busy. And then eventually, my brain stopped coming up with excuses at all. Then comes the realization that you’re not busy, you’re just a jerk and a crappy friend. 

Which is why I’m trying to make up for it now, standing beside my 2005 Corolla with the dented front bumper, waiting for Stephen to slide open the doors of that van and finally taste the freedom I’ve had all these years. While my freedom may have been undeserved, he has definitely earned his. Anyway, I have to be here because I’m the closest thing Stephen has to family. Without me, it’s a lonesome city bus ride to the halfway house. 

It was a grey morning in December, not unlike the day when it all came to a crashing halt for us. Exhaust drifted into the bitter cold air from the tailpipe of the van as it idled by the curb. I could feel my heartbeat ramping up. Who was I really going to see come out of that door? It wasn’t going to be the kid I knew ten years ago. I fidgeted with the car keys in my pocket, brimming with nervous energy. 

Finally, the sliding door whooshed open and landed with a thunk. Stephen lowered his head and stepped onto solid ground -- free ground. He wasn’t dressed for the weather, wearing only a black long-sleeve shirt and khaki pants, with what appeared to be prison-issue black boots. Were those the clothes he’d been wearing when he went in? I felt stupid for not thinking to bring him a jacket or hat and gloves. Stephen kind of looked side to side and then took one last glance at the place that had been his entire world for the last ten years. Then he looked straight at me. He was clean-shaven, and actually looked like the Stephen I remembered, save for some wrinkles on his forehead, a few more around his eyes and mouth. His irises still shone bright blue. 

He didn’t avert his gaze as he stepped towards me. He got close enough that I thought he was going to say something, but then he just made a quick turn around the front of the car, opened the passenger door, and slipped inside. I hesitated a brief moment before joining him inside the car. 

“Hey Stephen,” I said, like an idiot. “You look good, man.” 

Silence. I pulled out of the parking space and inched towards the county highway. While looking out of Stephen’s window for cars before making my turn, I caught a glimpse of Stephen fidgeting with the passenger side air vents. Open and shut, side to side. A little swipe of the fingers was all it took to slide those bars around. How simple. 

“You must be starving,” I said, continuing to sound like an idiot. “I passed a diner on the way in that looked pretty good. We can stop there.” 

We continued to hum silently down the highway, dead trees on either side stretching their branches over us, as if protecting us from something that could crash down out of that formless, grey sky. 

I pulled into the diner parking lot. Stephen had stopped playing with the air vents but still hadn’t said a word. We got out of the car, slamming the doors behind us. A tinkling of bells as we stepped through the front door of the diner. It was of the type you find in small towns, wood panelling on the walls and little tchotchkes all around, like you were in grandma’s dining room. I took my keys and wallet out of my pocket as we sat down, tossing them on the table. The waitress came by and poured us coffees without us even having to ask. I sipped mine while Stephen just stared out the window, steam rising out of his mug stamped with the name of some local auto dealer. 

The waitress was back out from the kitchen. “What can I get for you fellas today?” You’re in one of these small towns, you kind of expect the full 1950s getup, cream-colored apron and hairnet. She just had on jeans and a blue sweatshirt. 

“I’ll have the breakfast sandwich with sausage, please,” I said. 

The waitress scribbled the order down on her pad while looking over at Stephen. “And you?”  

Stephen was still staring out the window. For a second I thought he was just going to keep on saying nothing. Then, without turning to look, he said, “I’ll have a western omelette.” 

“OK, I’ll put that order right--”

“And a small stack of pancakes, plus two sausage links and as much bacon you can give me and still call it a side of bacon. And I’ll have the slice of apple pie I saw on your counter on the way in.” 

“All right,” the waitress said, scribbling away. “Will that be all?”

“Yes,” Stephen said, “that’s all.” 

Stephen still hadn’t averted his eyes from the window. I looked out and saw an elderly couple getting out of their car in the parking lot. It was a shock to hear Stephen’s voice again. I hadn’t heard that voice in ten years. It instantly took me back to a younger self. An even stupider self, if you can believe it. Back when I could still believe certain delusions about myself. Those were all gone now. 

I didn’t know if I should say something now, or wait for Stephen. What’s the proper way to handle these things? I needed a Miss Manners for people trying to make amends with a friend they ratted out a decade ago.  

“So,” Stephen finally said, “got nothing to say to me?” 

Funny how worrying about making an ass of yourself somehow seems to assist in making an ass of yourself. 

“No,” I said. “I’ve got a lot to say.”

“Then start.” 

“I-” I tried to start, but I had no clue what to say. This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you, “I’d rehearsed what I was going to say a million times, but in the moment the words just wouldn’t come out.” But you know what? I hadn’t given a single thought to what I was going to say. Crazy, right? But I know I’m a jerk, so that’s what you get I guess.  

“Stephen, I- I am sorry. I’m sorry for what you went through. You didn’t deserve it. Or maybe we did both deserve it, but it’s not fair that you’re the only one who paid the price.” 

“And?” Stephen said. 

“And- and I’m sorry that I was the one who put you there. I’m sorry I didn’t try to save you the way you tried to save me. Did save me.” 

Stephen finally took a sip from his coffee and looked back out the window. He had a different look on his face though, like he’d decided something. 

“You know,” Stephen said, putting his mug back down on the table, “I haven’t had a single strip of bacon in ten years. I think I can wait a bit longer.” 

Before I could react, Stephen swiped my keys from the table and bolted out the door. I stood up but I didn’t run after him. I just watched as he coolly opened the driver-side door of my dented Corolla, turned the ignition, and pulled out of the parking lot. 

The waitress came over with our food piled on her tray. “He coming back?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Was that your car?” 

“No,” I told her. “It was his.” 

“Huh, well all right. Hope you’re hungry.” She put down the plates holding the breakfast sandwich, the eggs, the sausage, the pancakes, the bacon towered high, until practically the whole table was covered. I sat back down and started into my sandwich, grabbing a few strips of bacon and tossing them onto my plate. Maybe he’d just been waiting to figure out exactly how big of a jerk I was. 

I finished everything that was on the table. Then I convinced the elderly couple to take me home.  

December 05, 2020 00:49

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1 comment

Tim Bonczar
04:00 Dec 10, 2020

John, I really enjoyed your story. I was sorry to see it end. I didn't expect the ending, but it works really well.


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